Surge in Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes, Study Reports

A recent study from the California State University at San Bernardino has reported a surge in hate crimes against Muslims. Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 78% in 2015 across the 20 states surveyed.

The report reveals that last year was the worst year for anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2001, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Last year’s increase was so precipitous, that even if no other anti-Muslim hate crimes are recorded in the remaining unanalyzed states, 2015’s partial numerical total would still be the highest since 2001 and the second highest on record,” the study states.

According to the study, politicians’ divisive rhetoric, terrorism and an atmosphere of anti-Muslim stereotyping have converged, helping to fuel the recent spike in reported incidents.

But whether or not ordinary Muslims have experienced hate crimes themselves, many are feeling the broader effects.

The bombing on the streets of New York City in the early hours of Sept. 18 put Nour Salim on edge.

As she gets dressed, she worries about wearing her headscarf differently. She’s been the target of racist comments in the past. As she waits for the subway, she’s sure to stand a few extra steps back from the edge of the platform. She’s heard stories of Muslim men and women getting pushed off platforms into oncoming trains.

When a bombing or shooting happens, Nour can’t simply mourn.

“I’m mourning too but more than that I’m afraid. I’m afraid they’re going to name the suspect as Muslim. I’m afraid of what the repercussions of that are going to be. That’s always the first thought any time something big like that happens. Are they Muslim? And what will that mean for me?” she said. “It’s really sad.”

She says that even though racism in Massachusetts is not as pervasive as her home state of Texas, it’s here.

The California State study did not include Massachusetts among the states it surveyed. But incidents over the past 12 to 18 months provide a glimpse of anti-Muslim sentiments in the state.

In the early hours of Nov. 1, 2015, members of the Islamic Center of Burlington awoke to find graffiti on the walls of their building. Vandals had spray-painted “USA” repeatedly in massive letters.

John Robbins, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, helped coordinate a response for the Islamic center.

This wasn’t the first time the center had been a victim of crime or bigotry. According to Robbins, over the past several years the Islamic Center of Burlington has faced slurs shouted at congregants from car windows, similar graffiti vandalism and a series of robberies.

“Unfortunately this is something that we see on a fairly regular basis in the Muslim community and with the uptick of charged political rhetoric that demonizes Muslims, we’re seeing it even more,” Robbins said. “Especially in the last 12 to 18 months.”

This July, the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester faced backlash over its attempt to purchase land for a cemetery in the town of Dudley.

Having eyed a 52-acre parcel for two years, the Islamic Society had put in an application to the town to use the land as a cemetery. But the town has denied the application, citing its first right of refusal to buy the property.

Dr. Amjad Bahnassi is the chairman of the board of trustees for the Islamic Society and has helped oversee the application and purchase process.

The Islamic Society of Greater Worcester has grown to thousands of members in recent years, and right now, they don’t have a nearby cemetery to use for their burials, he said. But the search for a cemetery is also personal for Dr. Bahnassi.

Since 2004, his son has been buried in the only land the Islamic Society has available to them, in Enfield, Connecticut. When he and his family want to visit his son’s grave, they have to drive an hour each way.

“It’s a very painful experience. It’s very difficult emotionally to go there and on top of that, you have to suffer a long drive back and forth,” Bahnassi said. “We struggle every time.”

But when the matter of purchasing the land came before a public approval hearing, a number of town residents in the audience vocally opposed the Society’s application according to Bahnassi.

Some residents commented that they didn’t like Islamic music, and members of the Islamic Society would bother the town with it. Some said that the Islamic Society would bring people from Afghanistan to be buried in Dudley. Others said the Society would apply “Islamic sharia law” in the cemetery.

The backlash at the public hearing was shocking for Dr. Bahnassi.

“Some of the complaints we could never think of,” he said. “You get very frustrated when they misrepresent who you are. That’s not me, that’s not who I am, that’s not what we do.”

While some have focused on the rise of political figures like Donald Trump to explain the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, others see the increase in hate crimes and racism as also the result of more long-term policies and trends.

The California State study reports an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes over multiple years, even during periods when the overall number of reported hate crimes was declining.

Sofia Arias helped lead a thousand-person protest in support of Syrian refugees last November after Gov. Charlie Baker initially opposed the resettlement of the refugees in Massachusetts. She sees the war on terror under Presidents Bush and Obama as the main context for the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes.

“A lot of the studies tend to situate it within the current election season, but I think that it’s been a process over 15 years. What Trump has done is make it more acceptable.” she said. “I think you can’t understand Trump without understanding these 15 years, both under Bush and Obama and what they’ve created.”

Chris Morrill is a freelance writer in Boston. His writings have appeared in and the Bay State Banner.